QUINCY -- If you could choose your own teacher, what qualities would you look for?
When Ron Clark Academy Executive Director Kim Bearden posed that question to some 2,100 Quincy Conference participants in Friday morning's keynote, the answers ranged from energy and excitement to connections and rapport with students.
Then Bearden asked how many in the audience would choose their own classroom before admitting that some days in her 33-year teaching career she wouldn't have.
"We talk about the challenges, the struggles our kids go through -- and we should. We're here to help those children. We don't often talk enough about the challenges and struggles that the teachers, administrators, the adults in that building are going through as well. Sometimes our own lives get in the way," Bearden said. "How do you uplift those kids when you've got nothing left?"
Bearden shared the story of the academy, and portions of her own life, to highlight the importance of uplifting students and community.
Quincy Junior High School science teacher Heather Maston compared Bearden's message to therapy that comes at a perfect time in the school year when "the glimmer of the new year" has faded.
"It gets you fired up," she said. "Let's work for the kids."
When Bearden's first marriage fell apart after learning her husband was living a double life, the struggle followed her into her classroom, where she worked with students she loved but could no longer find joy. Talking with a teacher friend helped her regain her joy -- and find ways to transform how she deals with difficult situations even today.
"It's not what happens to you that defines you. It's what happens through you," Bearden said. "I focused on uplifting those kids, and when I fell short, I forgave myself, but by focusing on lifting them up, it pulled me up."
She surrounded herself with people who "fueled" her soul whenever possible and emphasized connections with students and coworkers -- modeling in her life what she wanted to see in others.
"If you want to work with enthusiastic, joyful and engaged students, you must exude enthusiasm, joy and must be engaged," Bearden said.
The payoffs, she said, can be huge.
"All kids need you. You might be the only one to push them, challenge them, believe in them, uplift them," Bearden said. "By helping those children I am not just helping them. By helping those children I am possibly affecting the lives of millions."